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Northwestern 72, Gardner-Webb 59: Rapid Reaction

Northwestern once again came out slow on Monday night against an inferior Gardner-Webb team. However, on this occasion, the Wildcats turned it on in the second half and will head to Las Vegas on the back of a rather comfortable 72-59 victory over the Runnin' Bulldogs. Here are three reactions to the win:

First Half Struggles

Before tonight, through five games, we had seen two entirely different Northwestern teams. There was the team that was clicking on all cylinders against UIC and that played Stanford tough in the first half in Palo Alto; then there was the team that trailed Illinois State by 18 at halftime and nearly fell flat again against IUPUI.

During the first half on Monday night, we once again saw the latter. Northwestern was sluggish early on, and when a mediocre basketball team plays sluggishly, it is not a pretty sight. The Wildcats shot just 33 percent, but even that doesn’t accurately depict what was truly a horrid 20 minutes of offensive basketball.

Fortunately for coach Chris Collins and his team though, they once again were facing rather weak opposition. They perhaps realized their fortune at halftime (when they actually led by 3) and finally decided to hit the gas pedal. The Wildcats opened the second half on a 15-6 run and effectively established themselves as the better team of the two – which they undoubtedly are.

However, corroborating superiority over a team such as Gardner-Webb is nothing to write home about. It’s something that any Big Ten team should do, and that most Big Ten teams do with ease. Northwestern can’t keep struggling against teams rated outside KenPom’s top 250 (Gardner-Webb was 264 coming into the night) and just expect to flip a switch in January and compete with Michigan or Wisconsin, or even Purdue or Illinois. Coming to play in one of every three or four games isn’t going to cut it.

Alex Olah

Rumors that Pau Gasol came to play for Northwestern tonight disguised as Olah are untrue. But you’d be forgiven if you thought that that was the case, because Olah looked like a completely new player.

Now, there are a few caveats worth noting: this Gardner-Webb team isn’t on par with many teams Northwestern will face from this point forward, and it was a rare occasion where Olah had a significant size advantage over his opponent. Nonetheless, it was an impressive offensive display from the big Romanian.

First of all, we could start and stop with the fact that Olah threw down a running two-hand jam in transition. But what stood out most was his composure in the post. When Olah got the ball with his back to the basket, he would take the time to survey the defense. Defenders would bluff as if they were coming to help, but once the coast was clear, Olah would make his move – and most of the moves he made were good ones. He showed off clean footwork, soft touch, and a newfound aggressiveness. He dropped in sweeping hook shots with both hands, and finished as NU’s leading scorer with 18 points. He also blocked five shots on the defensive end.

Chances are this is just a flash in the pan, but in terms of post presence, if Olah can give Northwestern half of what he did tonight in future games, the Wildcat’s offense will drastically improve.

New defensive looks

Particularly in the first half, Northwestern showed different defensive looks with a higher frequency than they’ve done in the past. The Wildcats flirted with a 3/4 –court zone press. If nothing else, it’s a way to make their opponents think, and to plant hesitation in their minds.

We also saw a fair amount of 2-3 zone from Collins’ team. It’s a useful tool to go to at times, but if it’s a tool that will be used in conference play, it must be employed with more intensity and activity. Tonight’s zone was, for the most part, passive.

If you look at some of the premier zone teams around the country – Syracuse is the obvious example – they do all their movement while passes are still in the air, and are in defensive position by the time an offensive player catches the ball. They also have their hands up and active at all time, forcing turnovers with deflections and interceptions.

Obviously Northwestern isn’t Syracuse – they don’t have the length or athleticism – but this team can have success with a zone if it gets more comfortable with it and learns to play it more actively.

Postgame quotes:

Here are some words from Collins, Olah, and Drew Crawford following the win:

Collins on the need to come to play every night: "Sometimes you guys look at the names of schools, and you don't realize how good some of these teams are. Gardner-Webb, you look at their history the past couple years, they've beaten teams, they've lost at the buzzer to high-major teams, they've been a factor in their league. This was a really good win for us."

"We're trying to win every game that we play. It's not easy, but it's fun. Every game we play, we gotta fight our tails off in order to win. In college basketball, you can forget about the names, the lesser names and the big names. It's a different time in college basketball, you have to show up every night, doesn't matter who you're playing, or where you're playing them. If you're not ready to play, you will lose. That's why we have to have a mindset of 'we're going to show up every night and be ready to play."

Collins on the lack of offense in the first half: "I thought we were playing really well, we just couldn't throw it in the ocean. We had to see the ball go in a little bit."

Collins on Olah: "Alex Olah was the star of the game. He gets a bad rep sometimes for not being as physical as maybe he should, but I'm really proud of Alex. He took his time, and we went to him. He was a presence at the basket. Sometimes you forget with some of these guys, he's just starting his sophomore year, this is a young player, and I'm really proud of the way he played tonight."

"This was the best job we've done of getting him [Olah] the ball that consistently. If Alex has a man behind him in the post, we want Alex to touch the ball, because good things happen. We gotta consistently find ways to get the ball into the paint."

Olah on his performance tonight: "The coaches were on me to be more aggressive in the post. I have to be a presence in the post. Every time I get the ball in there, I have to make a move. I have to be aggressive. They [the coaches] say 'take your time.' If I take my time and am patient, I can score against anybody."

Crawford on what he's looking forward to about the trip to Las Vegas: "Nothing at all [off the court]. It's a business trip. From the time we get on the plane to the time we come back, it's always going to be a business trip."